The Noor Inayat Khan Story: A Double-Edged Sword

On September 13, 1944, a political prisoner was executed in Dachau Concentration Camp at the hands of the Nazis.  The political prisoner was a woman, an Indian, and a Muslim. Her name was Noor Inayat Khan and she was one of millions of dissidents that died fighting Hitler. Both Muslims and Westerners are unfamiliar with her story, but a recent and heart-wrenching documentary, Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story, shines a light on this forgotten Muslim freedom fighter. Noor worked for the English Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Nazi-occupied Paris. Her decision to join the resistance against Germany bespoke a rare bravery and selflessness, which the film frames as the result of her father’s Sufi teachings. Her eventual capture and murder immortalizes her in history as a heroine, who made the ultimate sacrifice in defying evil. Her story is exceedingly relevant to times when the Muslim community remains fraught with antisemitism, and relations between Jews and Muslims are contentious. Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) produced this film and premiered it in Washington, D.C. in February at the regal and velvety Warner Theatre. However, the film and the program that preceded it posed a paradox. Anti-oppression was emphasized, but it served a very specific interest. Indeed, the film premiere was a coup for an interfaith that accomplishes bridge-building, but not without making significant concessions to powers that generate oppression.

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Noor Inayat Khan was only 30 years old when she was killed by Nazis.

To further delve into this, it’s necessary to examine Noor’s positionality as an Indian woman in that time period and relative to the colonial government she was working for. In the 1940s, India was colonized by Britain and had suffered colonial and imperialist exploitation by various Western powers for more than three hundred years. With the onset of World War II, some Indians pursued a loyalist line, others allied with the Axis powers, and still some others stayed neutral in a contention where they would be the ultimate losers as colonized subjects. The colonial violence enacted on the Quit India Movement championed by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress confirmed this. Even more denigrating was the mass famine of 1943 that killed at least three million Bengalis, a starvation deliberately engineered by the British, who diverted food from Bengal to other areas in the empire and prevented India from using its ships for food imports. When asked about the famine, Churchill famously remarked that it did not matter because the Indians would go on “breeding like rabbits.”

Noor Inayat Khan therefore compromised a dual and challenging role, as a dissenter of fascism and a woman with a colonized and racialized heritage. But her predicament wasn’t rare. It was reminiscent of the Maghrebi Muslims in France who fought the Nazis even as they were colonized and maltreated by the French. It was this story that UPF originally started researching and co-founder Alex Kronemer mentioned this in his preliminary speech. Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian Muslims protected both French and North African Jews from the occupation forces. The Grand Mosque of Paris issued false certificates and provided shelter to the persecuted minority, including a famous Algerian cabaret singer, Salim Halali. This event was dramatized in Ismaël Ferroukhi’s Free Men, a French-language film starring award-winning actor Tahar Rahim as the Algerian Muslim protagonist. But where Free Men succeeds and Enemy of the Reich fails is in the consolidation of these polarized identities and the recognition of these Muslim characters as essentially colonized. “We will never be free unless we wage war on colonialism and fascism,” a resistance fighter cries in a memorable scene in Free Men. ”Down with colonialism! Down with fascism!”

The parallel of colonialism with fascism isn’t coincidental. Enemy of the Reich, however, fails to approach that. There are limitations to every project, of course. Free Men was a historically-derived fictional film whereas Enemy of the Reich was a documentary. But there were numerous opportunities. Noor’s ancestor, Tipu Sultan, is mentioned, but the film does not elaborate on what he is famous for, which was anticolonial resistance against the British. Noor’s overseers refer to her as brainless and she is betrayed ultimately by a woman on her team, but racism isn’t even speculated as the motivating factor for these happenstances.

In many ways, the accompanying program suited the film. The speakers emphasized the importance of this historical story to current times, and they were right.  But not precisely in the ways they claimed. The subtextual message was that Noor fought against extremism, and that it’s the duty of today’s Muslims to fight against Islamic extremism, delineating a parallel between Nazi fascism and Islamic fundamentalism. But there was another insidious, uncanny parallel that was tailored to the one-sided theme of the film, and which the speakers failed to mention. Suhail Khan, a representative of the Institute of Global Exchange, was the first guest speaker. He described his experience on an interfaith voyage to “the holy land.” In an age where Palestinian refugees cannot return to their homeland, Khan didn’t just go to Israel in the name of “bridge-building.” He called it “this troubled corner of the world” in his speech, refusing to recognize the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli state. Ira Forman, a state-appointed envoy of the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and a former lawyer for AIPAC, was the next guest speaker. He condemned the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, French Muslims, and the Muslims of the Central African Republic, but Palestinian Muslims were conspicuously missing from his speech. This deliberate conflation of antisemitism with anti-Israel sentiment served the specific interest of normalizing Israeli colonialism. It fit in perfectly with the documentary’s silence on the colonization and destruction of Noor’s country of origin, India.

Closer to India, Eileen O’Connor was an impromptu speaker. The deputy assistant secretary to the bureau of South and Central Asian affairs, she name-dropped her specialty, that iconic term, “Af-Pak.”  She talked about how she worked with “moderate Imams” in Afghanistan who “counter voices of radicalization”, a tacit justification of American occupation in Afghanistan and imperialist presence in Pakistan. Afghan civilians are drone striked, shot, and raped by American forces in the name of fighting terrorism, but O’Connor maintained that the Taliban was the sole evil obstructing peace with Muslims. So did Alex Kronemer, the co-founder of UPF. The 9/11 terrorists wanted to “create a wedge between the Muslim world and the West”, he orated, and UPF was combating that. What he does not realize is that the wedge, rather the gaping disparity, existed already. And only radical change in foreign policy can bridge it, and even that doesn’t heal the residual scars of empire, which are painful and irrevocable.

The Nazis were terrible, destructive, and oppressive, but so were the imperialists. As Aimé Césaire wrote in his renowned anticolonial treatise Discourse On Colonialism, “the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois” of the West cannot forgive the Nazis because they “applied to Europe the colonial practices that had previously been applied only to the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the Negroes of Africa.” Fighting fascism is a necessary lesson to every Muslim in the world, and it’s what the community can learn from Noor. But so is fighting colonialism and imperialism. Condemning one without the other reveals a deficiency in principle and sustains the oppression of Muslims and other imperialized peoples in the world.

This article originally appeared in The Islamic Monthly.

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Filed under Antifascism, Colonialism, Imperialism, Islam, Media

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